In over 20 years of scoring motion pictures, Basil Poledouris has proven himself a master of melody and emotional power, producing a wealth of music that ranges from rousing adventure to intimate drama, and forging rewarding creative relationships with directors like Paul Verhoeven, John Milius, Randal Kleiser, Simon Wincer and John Waters.
While he has worked on some of the screen’s toughest action pictures including Conan, Flesh + Blood, Robocop and The Hunt For Red October, Poledouris’ strength has always been his ability to find the emotional center of a film.
Poledouris won early accolades for his lush orchestral scores to Milius’ Big Wednesday and Kleiser’s The Blue Lagoon. His 1982 score for Milius’ Conan The Barbarian assured his place in the pantheon of great modern film music with its hammering “Anvil of Crom” theme featuring French horns, and its blend of blood-and-thunder choral cues with an unexpectedly beautiful, lyrical sensibility. His Emmy award-winning score for the Larry McMurtry masterpiece Lonesome Dove is a classic of the genre, with an unforgettable, gently rolling title theme that is as memorable as any western film theme ever written. Within a year of scoring Lonesome Dove, Poledouris collaborated with director John McTiernan on The Hunt For Red October, bringing an epic feeling to what might have been a simple Cold War thriller by underscoring sequences of the Red October launch with a sweeping, traditional-sounding Russian choral anthem. In 1996 Poledouris became one of a select few contemporary film composers to be commissioned to write music for the Olympic Games, and he created a thrilling accompaniment to the ’96 Olympic Opening Ceremonies dance sequence entitled “The Tradition of the Games.”
Poledouris began studying piano at the age of seven and was initially set on the road to become a concert pianist up until he entered college. “I lasted about a semester as a music student; basically I was not prepared for 20th century music. Most of my piano training literature really only took me through Prokofiev. That’s still 20th century, but it certainly isn’t modern by any stretch of the imagination, even in the mid-60s. Every technique of composition being taught at that time, primarily serial composition and twelve tone composition, left me disinterested in writing that kind of music. I wandered into the cinema department because of (Miklos) Rozsa, and immediately thought that it looked to me like film was the music of my generation. Cinema was a very new art, there were no rules, and it just seemed to fit in with the Beatles changing the world, and the world itself changing. It was an extraordinary time of social upheaval, and film just seemed to be part of it.”
Poledouris attended film school at USC with a graduating class that included such luminaries as George Lucas, John Milius and Randal Kleiser. It was Milius who gave the composer his first major break with his score for the surfing movie Big Wednesday in 1978. The full-bodied sound of that score revealed a composer quite at ease with the symphony orchestra. “I had done a lot of educational and documentary television where I got to work with smaller choirs of the orchestra. I had done about a hundred of these things before my first work on Big Wednesday, and that was the first time I really got to hear my work played by a group of that size.” His collaboration with Milius continued with Conan, Red Dawn, Farewell to the King, and Flight of the Intruder.
Poledouris first teamed with Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven for the medieval adventure film, Flesh + Blood, in 1985. Seeking out a major composer for his first American-financed film, Verhoeven was immediately drawn to Poledouris’ dramatic voice. “I think he was quite taken by the Conan score,” Poledouris recalls. “I know he loved the movie, and he liked the idea of it being more like a silent film. Conan’s dialogue is minimal. He knew that he wanted a score that was as descriptive. I think he liked the power of the Flesh + Blood score and the kind of strange world it created. There’s much more of a medieval aspect to that score, as well as a lot of religious symbolism, but I always saw the Rutger Hauer character and his band as land pirates, so there’s a swashbuckling character too.”
The next collaboration was 1987’s Robocop, an ingenious science fiction movie that has been regarded as one of the finest in the genre, although its extreme violence caused a great deal of controversy at the time. “I think Verhoeven and Milius both see violence as something that just happens, that it’s natural for the time in which these movies take place, or even today, it’s over the top for an effect.”
The score for Starship Troopers is a powerful work of unusual complexity and impact. The film’s ground-breaking special effects resulted in an extended post-production period which afforded Poledouris an unprecedented opportunity to develop his themes and approach over a period that stretched from February until October 1997. Considering that most films provide the composer with three to five weeks in which to write and record their scores, the Starship Troopers music is a truly exceptional case that points out the care with which director Paul Verhoeven regards this aspect of movie-making.
Perhaps nothing highlights the versatility of this man so much as contrasting the epic scale of his Starship Troopers score for a 96-piece orchestra with his intimate music for the acclaimed 1996 film It’s My Party, which the composer scored and performed for solo piano. His other credits show a talent capable of adapting to virtually any kind of film, from the relationship between a young boy and a 30-ton killer whale in Free Willy to the off-the-wall comedy of cult director John Waters (Cecil B. DeMented, Serial Mom), to one of the most excruciatingly suspenseful nail-biters of recent years, the Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown. In each case Poledouris’ contribution was integral to the success of the film. Other collaborations include Sam Raimi’s For Love of the Game, Bille August’s Les Miserables and Hugh Grant’s Mickey Blue Eyes.
Basil and wife Bobbie have two children, Zoë and Alexis.